Anything tagged with the phrase "world's biggest" tends to be worthy of fascination for the average Australian -- think of the hordes of visitors that flock to the Big Merino and the Big Banana. When SanDisk's Sansa e280 was announced in August, it garnered a lot of attention for being the flash MP3 player with the world's biggest capacity. A formidable threat to the original iPod Nano, the 8GB e280 looked impressive for its list of features, memory expansion slot and black-and-neon-blue design.
Since then, Apple has grabbed the spotlight with the launch of the second-generation Nano players, also available in up to 8GB capacities. But, on paper at least, the e280 still has the edge in terms of specifications.
The e280 is the latest in SanDisk's Sansa e200 series, which created a stir with an anti-iPod marketing campaign that portrayed owners of the little white player as mindless sheep and monkeys. Although the wannabe-rebel advertising seemed a bit try-hard to us, we stopped complaining when we reviewed the 2GB e250. A feature-packed model with a simple, elegant design, the player impressed us with its sharp-looking video, simple drag-and-drop software interface and attractive price.
The e280 looks identical to the e250, with an iPod-esque vertical orientation, mechanical backlit scroll wheel and glossy black casing. The back of the player has a brushed bronze finish, a metal we've been seeing a lot of lately in phone models like Sony Ericsson's Walkman range. Also on the back are four little screws that hold the back-plate in place. These tiny bits of metal provide hope to those who have been burned by faulty iPod batteries, as they mean that the battery can be replaced without needing to trek to a service centre.
On the right side of the e280 is a MicroSD card slot, which allows for an additional 2GB storage. A flash player with 10GB of memory overall -- not too shabby. The left side features a dedicated recording button for capturing voice and FM radio, and the top of the e280 houses the headphone socket, hold switch and a pinhole-sized microphone. On the bottom is the proprietary port for USB connection and charging.
When we reviewed the e250, we mentioned that the grooves of the scroll wheel "feel a tad icky to the thumb". Nothing's changed with the e280; while rotating the glowing blue jog dial isn't exactly arduous, it's not quite the smooth experience of spinning your digits around the Nano's touch-sensitive scroller. The four buttons on the outside of the wheel -- play/pause, forward, reverse and menu -- are also too small and too close to the jog dial. Not a prohibitive design issue, but when you've been spoiled by Apple's simple iPod layouts, you become picky.
In terms of features, SanDisk has gone all-out for the e200 series. All players in the range sport voice and FM radio recording, photo and video playback, and that much-appreciated ability to expand overall memory by up to 2GB.
Of course, it's mainly about the music. The e280 supports WMA and MP3 formats, and tunes can be transferred using Windows Media Player or via simple drag-and-drop. SanDisk's software allows you to convert photo and video files into player-friendly format (the alphabet of supported file types includes JPEG, TIFF, PNG, BMP and GIF, AVI, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPG, MPEG-4 (AVI), DAT, ASF, MOV, and WMV).
We found navigating menus on the e280 to be fast and simple, with no manual-reading required. The graphic-based main menu -- which has options for music, radio, photos, video, voice and settings -- was attractive and a breeze to scroll through. Pressing the bottom button during music or radio playback will also bring up a context sensitive options menu, while pressing the on/off button will switch you right back to the main menu (pressing it again will send you back to the screen you were originally in). Using the scroll wheel and its surrounding buttons is generally easy, although we did at times find the outer buttons to be a little small and too close to the wheel itself for comfort.
Despite SanDisk being better known for its memory products than for audio fidelity, the sound quality on the Sansa e280 is rather good. Most listeners shouldn't have any complaints -- the music we pumped through the e280 was crisp, featured decent bass and was free from distortion. Radio signals were also good and reception was strong. Recorded radio doesn't fare so well -- the Sansa player downgrades audio quality of the recorded signal. Those who like to set their own equaliser settings will be a little disappointed, however, as the e280 player only has preset settings (such as rock, pop, dance, hip hop and more) rather than user adjustable ones.
Video looks surprisingly good on the e280, although the player has certain limitations which prevent it from being a completely compelling portable video solution. Video automatically defaults to a widescreen format, which means you have to hold the Sansa on its side to view. The video conversion process to get movies onto the Sansa automatically breaks large movie files down into more manageable chunks for player to handle. For example, a half hour video may be broken into three files on the player. Playback suffers as a result, as there's a noticeable five to 10 second gap between switching files.
The dedicated record button on side is excellent feature -- press it and takes you directly to voice recording. This functionality, coupled with the fact that voice recordings are generally of high quality, makes the Sansa e280 a great impromptu voice recorder.
The e280 is available now for the cannily crafted price of AU$379 -- one dollar cheaper than the 8GB iPod Nano. Take that, Apple.